(Guest Blogger: Jack Kruse)
So you finally have orders, or maybe just the “dreaded” verbals which are often just about as good and useful as a football bat on a tennis court. Either way, the journey begins–it’s time to get busy! Whether this is your first OSC post or your fifth, there’s a lot you can do now to make your tour a success!
Get on the distro. One of your first steps is to get on the distribution lists for all the embassy reporting that goes out, whether that be from the OSC, DAO (when possible), PAS, POL, ECON, USAID, CLO, or Peace Corps. At a minimum, you want to see what the OSC is putting on their biweekly email to the Combatant Command. NOTE: This requires some outreach from the guy/gal you’re replacing and two extra clicks on their keyboard to forward you things–hopefully they’re onboard with your desire to arrive prepared. The initial goal here is not for you to provide feedback or ask too many questions but to passively consume. You’ll very quickly see what’s useful to read in-depth every week and what you should just browse or delete.
Why should you care what the Peace Corps is doing in your country? Easy- this office probably knows much of the country and the local population best. It usually ends up being the office also with the best resources for primers on the local dialect and culture. Because they have classes of volunteers coming in on a continuous basis throughout the year, my experience is that they have things wired tight. A good example of this was when the Peace Corps office in Comoros re-opened during my tour and almost immediately its volunteers started producing some phenomenal Youtube videos on the local culture and language.
Follow the embassy on Facebook/Twitter etc. Some embassies are more prolific than others so this may or may not prove useful. In Madagascar, the U.S. Embassy Facebook page was the most followed page in the entire country. Take note of what the embassy puts on its page–this page can be a key strategic messaging enabler for you in promoting the SC work that you will do. Oftentime, the Peace Corps and USAID office in your country will have a separate Facebook page.
Get to Googling. Find biographies on everyone you can in the embassy and in the host nation government/military. You should know everything about your Ambassador that’s publicly available. She may not be signing your FITREP/Eval but her support can make or break your tour. This process will serve you well in life–you never want to walk into a meeting without having done at least some baseline research on the person or group of people. In your research you should be looking for common points of interests: do you both play tennis, root for the same football team, have kids the same age etc.? From a programmatic perspective you’ll also want to see what’s important to that person/office. This can enable you to start thinking about points of synergy and mutual support between their programs and your own. This research will serve you well during your first weeks on the job when you will be doing a whirlwind of in-briefs with the various offices at the embassy.
Read every post at www.africaosc.com before you get to the Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies (DISCS) and you will be the smartest person in the room. This Army FAO’s blog delves into the grimy details of how various funding streams are actually implemented on the ground (among many other things).
Read the history of the U.S. Embassy in your prospective country. Yes, there’s an incredible resource out there that I am always surprised more people don’t know about: The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is a non-profit located at the State Department’s George Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center. They have a “Country Reader” for nearly every country in the world. These readers are a compilation of interviews done with various embassy personnel dating back from at least the 1950’s in most cases. The documents offer keen insight into how diplomacy has been carried out against the backdrop of the host nation’s history.
Read Your Country’s History. If you’re a FAO headed to an OSC then you most likely have a master’s degree and (hopefully) the commensurate political/historical background on Africa as a whole. Of course, just because you wrote your thesis comparing Moroccan and Algerian responses to Berber movements, don’t expect to get stationed there–my follow-on post after grad school was in Madagascar! With a Master’s degree you have the skills then to deep-dive and literature review to your heart’s content on your specific country. Find a well-reviewed tome on amazon and dig in and start taking notes!
Pick one of your host nation’s most well-known authors–of fiction–and read their most notable work. I know, I know, you don’t read fiction, you read important things like biographies about Civil War generals, and World War II generals and American presidents, and then you read military history, and joint doctrine and blah,blah, blah. Get a grip and trust me on this–after reading a country’s notable fiction, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of the country’s culture, struggles and perceived realities. If you’re having trouble finding something in English, check out the list in my “Reading the Continent” post, or the list from this writer who read a book from every country in the world list here. Then if you are still feeling soft and weak from reading fiction, go ahead and read a biography about someone from that country.
Pick a poet. Bear with me here, not to get all Lawrence of Arabia on you here but there’s a lot to be learned from a country’s poems/oral history. This is especially true when you delve into its poetry of independence/resistance/revolution. Think, for example, of the American cultural awareness and understanding one gains in reading the poems of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, or Gwendolyn Brooks with regards to the civil rights movement in the United States. Personally, I’d be embarrassed if someone assigned to Senegal wasn’t at least vaguely familiar with the writing of its longtime President Leopold Senghor (and first African member of the Academie Francaise). How else then could you knock a toast out of the ballpark by beginning it: Et nous baignerons, mon amie, dans une présence Africaine… . If you can’t stomach poetry, at least read your country’s national anthem–I’ve written about several of the African ones here: A country’s anthem can tell you a lot about its people’s outlook on life and the world in general.
Pick a musician. If you country has a well-known musician/composer/rapper/rock star you should probably at least familiarize yourself with a few songs.
Leverage your time in DC. DISCS should bring you through DC for a beltway tour (i.e., Joint Staff, OSD, relevant implementing agencies, etc.). But DC is also a great opportunity to hit up the local think tank circuit–a truncated list is below. If you’d like a larger list, the State Department has a good starter list at https://www.state.gov/s/p/tt/. Go online and see if there are events while you are in town. Some of these organizations might also have staff that specialize in your country. The following link currently provides an adequate calendar-style summary of upcoming events in the DC area: https://www.eventbrite.com/d/dc–washington/foreign-policy/
- Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS https://www.csis.org/)
- Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS https://africacenter.org/) They also have a daily media review that culls together a wide range of news from across the continent (also available in French)
- Atlantic Council (http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/)
- Council on Foreign Relations (CFR https://www.cfr.org/)
- Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (https://pulitzercenter.org/)
- The Institute of World Politics (https://www.iwp.edu/)
- Washington International Trade Association (https://wita.org/)
- World Affairs Council (https://www.worldaffairsdc.org/)
- The American Academy of Diplomacy (https://www.academyofdiplomacy.org/)
- National Endowment for Democracy (https://www.ned.org/)
- Arab Center DC (http://arabcenterdc.org/)
- United States Institute for Peace (https://www.usip.org/)
- Security Assistance Monitor (https://securityassistance.org/) This program operates under the umbrella of The Center for International Policy (http://www.ciponline.org/)
- Wilson Center (https://www.wilsoncenter.org/program/africa-program)
- Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/)
- Meridian International Center (http://www.meridian.org/)
- Center for Global Development (https://www.cgdev.org/)
Get your family involved. Find YouTube videos for your children about the country you’re going to. Read the above-mentioned articles and books with your spouse. Depending on your kids’ ages you can print out pictures to color, or create a “treasure hunt” where your kids search and find out a set of facts about your prospective country. None of us can be successful without supportive families. Remember, family will be around (hopefully) long after your military career–determine your priorities and fight for them.
Get alerted. You can set up relevant google alerts so you don’t miss any breaking news for your country-to-be: https://www.google.com/alerts
SEND A PHONE (Logistics Win Wars…and Make for Happy Families)
Get Connected. Upon arrival in-country you’ll likely be at work the next day conducting your turnover. Your spouse and children will be alone in a quasi-furnished house or local hotel room feeling completely isolated and disoriented: Who is the random guard hanging out in my yard all day? Why is there a strange man cutting my grass with scissors, yes scissors, in my backyard? What, the internet won’t be hooked up for two months?! Let’s face it, you’re only as good as the family who supports you. Do your spouse a favor and send an unlocked phone to your sponsor/predecessor in country the month before you arrive. Ask them to get it loaded with minutes and data. Then when your wife arrives she can at least call home, facebook message, and email her family and friends while you are at work. In some cases, your home internet can be set up ahead of time if someone will pay the fee ahead of time–so ASK. Once you’re the old hand at the embassy, offer your patio/living to new families who don’t have internet so they can come over and use yours to facetime/Skype back home.
Get the digits. Ask for the 301-985-XXXX number ahead of time. Most embassies have a VOIP number that anyone in the U.S. can call and be connected to the embassy operator. In most cases the operator can connect them to your home number or at least to your office. This can be a vital touchpoint for your spouse during those first few weeks.
Amazon Prime. Ship some of your favorite family snacks and cereals to the post ahead of time. Having some of these creature comforts waiting for you can make a world of difference.
Location, location, location. Think hard about where you want to live (i.e., closer to your kids’ school or the embassy). You may not have a choice depending on availability and the whims of the embassy housing committee but you make sure you at least have a chance when you fill out the housing survey. In most african countries you can hire a local driver fairly cheaply (it was only about $175 a month for a full-time driver in Madagascar for example) so if you end up with a long commute, you can at least getting some reading work done on your drives.
To ship a car or not. I think not having a car for our first four months at the embassy was fairly brutal on our family, particularly on our first overseas tour. In hindsight, I wish I would have bought a car from someone at the embassy AND shipped my SUV over. You are definitely rolling the dice buying a car sight unseen (in some cases) but the absence of our own vehicle compounded the isolation and stress level within our home tenfold those first few months. Some embassies will provide transportation on the weekends for shopping but many won’t, leaving you at the mercy of the local community to beg for rides to do simple things like go grocery shopping. If you do ship your car, think through every service it might need and ship those fluids/items with your household goods.